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By Matthew Salter and Michael Thoennessen
Another article on open access? After all, what’s left to discuss? Surely open access means that all research is made freely available online without pesky paywalls, right? Well, yes and no. Open access makes things available to all, but there are some costs and risks that need to be thoughtfully addressed.
APS has long supported the principles of open access and its potential benefits for both authors and readers, as it is entirely consistent with APS’s mission to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics. The Society places a high priority on access to science for the good of society, for example by making its journals free to read at all U.S. public and high school libraries. APS also takes an uncommonly liberal stance on self-archiving, allowing authors to post the final published version of their papers on their laboratory and institutional websites. And APS is a proud founding member of CHORUS—a non-profit organization that tracks publicly funded research articles and works to increase their public accessibility.
Our view of open access is laid out in the APS Statement on Open Access published in 2009 which reads "The APS supports the principles of Open Access to the maximum extent possible that allows the Society to maintain peer-reviewed high-quality journals, secure archiving, and the Society's long-term financial stability, to the benefit of the scientific enterprise."
And there’s the tricky part: how to provide open access while still operating both a scholarly publishing program that offers robust, high-quality peer-review, and a professional science society that runs activities—meetings, education programs, and science advocacy to name but a few—that ensure the health of the physics enterprise.
Publishing a high-quality, rigorously peer reviewed scholarly article is a complex process, involving steps such as selecting expert referees, managing the peer reviewing process, editing, copy-editing, typesetting, and archiving it to make it widely discoverable. Beyond those familiar steps, there are more than 100 other things that editors and publishers do.
Publishers have traditionally recouped the costs of these steps by selling journal subscriptions to institutional libraries and other customers. However, open access eliminates the need for journal subscription by removing the article paywall. An alternative is to replace subscriptions with an Article Processing Charge (APC), which is paid by authors and/or their institutional research offices.
APCs allow for unrestricted access, but this system shifts publishing costs directly onto authors and their institutions. So, researchers and their institutions are faced with the prospect of using money that could support research to pay to publish open access. Given already tight federal science budgets, APS is concerned that this presents a risk of reducing the nation’s overall research investment.
APCs vary considerably from journal to journal and publisher to publisher, depending on such factors as the selectivity of the journal and its perceived prestige. One way of reducing costs and thereby holding down APCs is for journals to cut back on the number and extent of their services by moving to a lighter-touch peer-review model.
One of the dangers of moving in this direction is a "race to the bottom" in which journals compete on price, paring back their processes in an effort to deliver ever lower APCs, putting the quality of the journal in jeopardy. So researchers would be placed in a difficult position: wanting to be sure that they get the best peer review and services possible, while keeping their research budgets in the black. Under these circumstances, it’s only natural that authors will seek out lower cost (or free) open access journals. However, the risks associated with using ultra-cheap journals are well documented and there is a danger that an overemphasis on lowering cost may end up damaging public confidence in published research and hurting the integrity of the overall scientific process.
Balancing the benefits and risks isn’t easy. Open access is a visionary concept that in principle allows the free flow of scientific information, with numerous potential benefits for humankind. However, it must be implemented in a way that ensures the quality and integrity of the disseminated scientific results and the overall progress of science.
Fortunately, we have time to sort this out, since national policies are still being developed. In the near term, APS has become a participant in SCOAP3—an international consortium for the large-scale open access publishing of high-energy physics research, coordinated by CERN. This is a significant test of open access. By participating in SCOAP3, APS will be able to continue to evaluate how open access can be achieved to the benefit of the physics community.
The lively debate around open access will no doubt continue. That’s entirely as it should be, and APS looks forward to being right in the center of the action—speaking up for the importance of maintaining the integrity of the scientific record, as well as promoting cost-effectiveness and easier access to scientific research.
Matthew Salter is the APS Publisher. Michael Thoennessen is the APS Editor in Chief.
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